The Pro Kabaddi League (PKL) has little to do with the weather, but Anup Kumar's PKL story could well be summarised over five monsoons.
In July 2014, the raider from Palra, Haryana, arrived in Mumbai and got blinded, quite literally, by the sheen of India's newest televised spectacle. The following year, at the peak of his stardom, the MVP would see his face blown up on three giant hoardings, one over the other, dotting Bandra Reclamation's overcast sky. Anup was modern kabaddi's first poster boy.
From 2015 onwards, however, his form -- much like his popularity and price tag -- would begin to deteriorate. This July, Anup began the tour as a coach for the first time, and even though the buzz of media managers and journalists around him at Mumbai's Taj Hotel was as much as before, this could be his quietest monsoon yet.
"I had three-four offers [of coaching]," Anup says in Hindi, laced with a little Haryanvi. "But I had a good tuning with Kailashji [Puneri Paltan CEO Kailash Kandpal] from season 2-3 onwards." The tuning led Paltan, yet looking for their first trophy, to sign him despite his previous season, where as player, he touched his lowest ebb by averaging 2.92 raid points per game. In season one, he had averaged 9.68 a game and in season five, 5.33.
While sitting out a training session in Jaipur in 2016, Anup had hinted at what was to come. "Age makes a lot of difference to form in this sport. I know how my performance was in the first season, the second season and how it's now - it worsens slowly. I can't train as much as I used to, cannot attend pre-season camps. I'll try to give this another two or three years if my body plays along. Not more, perhaps."
Weeks after that, Anup, in a hyped final between his team U Mumba and Patna Pirates in New Delhi, made an exorbitant error in the dying minutes. In his last raid, he took one wrong step into the lobby area to concede a point, which shifted momentum and the defending champions lost the match. "I don't remember the last time when I had got self-out like that. It was a huge mistake. It didn't let me sleep for two-three nights", he would say the following season.
In December 2018, during his last season as player, Anup watched from the VIP seats as his side, Jaipur Pink Panthers, lost for the 13th time in 22 games. His retirement blues would have been harsher had it not been for the lap of honour and social media tributes that followed.
The four-month long PKL economic cycle offers good money and more importantly, relevance to men like Anup, the ones who were local heroes even when the league was years away. A broadcast gig -- like his Haryana colleague and former Indian captain Rakesh Kumar last year -- could have been an option, but Anup opted for coaching, believing he still has some fuel left.
"I decided [on taking up coaching] several days after retirement. It's physically challenging but I'm not an oldie yet!," he smiles.
Over the past three seasons, the 2010 Asian Games gold medallist has trained lesser and lesser on the arduous mat owing to constant niggles. Instead, he would sip extremely sweet chai and strategise from the sidelines. His stamina and agility are still around though, despite his hookah sessions with friends in off-seasons back in Palra. "I practice with these boys, I run, I do drills... those routines are pretty much like last season's, actually," he says.
It's the match-day behaviour that Anup is still getting a grasp of. It will take time for him to get used to watching from the sidelines. "I cannot be so involved now, there are rules. I shout instructions from the dugout whenever it is permitted, but I obviously feel terrible when matches are slipping away and I'm not in the thick of things," he admits.
His frustration isn't a new feeling. Anup had been at home when India's hegemony over the Asian Games kabaddi gold was shaken by Iran in Jakarta last year. "Bada gussa aa-ra tha, baithe baithe coaching de-ra tha main ghar pe! ('I was getting very angry. I was trying to coach them from my seat in at home!)," he remembers.
Now with Pune losing poorly in their first three games, Anup could be under pressure to do more.
Passing the baton
Or maybe not. After multiple Asian Games golds (2010, 2014), a PKL win as U Mumba captain (2015) and a Kabaddi World Cup win as India captain (2016), Anup says his next big goal is to win the PKL trophy as coach. The could be just a generic media quote. What he will truly get gratification in is mentoring the next generation of kabaddi players who have begun tasting stardom.
"I spend a lot of time talking about these things [managing fame, fans] to the boys. I keep insisting that discipline is very important. If you don't do well as a sportsperson, perhaps your family or team may be disappointed but if you are still a good person -- that's very important -- everyone will respect you," he says, mentioning his quips to his boys about 'talking nicely and treating everyone well.'
"A good player with a bad attitude has value only till he plays," he says. "The day he stops, his reputation will be zero, and I believe this is true across fields."
New-gen superstars like Pardeep Narwal and Siddharth Desai have performed incredible feats on the mat that make Anup's chequered past seem unspectacular. "They know that only toiling hard can they take their game a level up. I see some of these boys go the extra mile in practice to close the gap with their seniors," he speaks of the youngsters.
That extra mile has the support of keen physios, monitored diets, ice baths after training sessions and fancy gyms at camps. For Anup's generation, which sweat it out in the heat and dust when nobody was watching, this shift still feels monumental.
In the midst of season four in 2016, a conversation with his family in Palra explained this shift best.
In their drawing room painted light green and dotted with trophies, Anup's elder sister Neelam shared that their father would not like Anup playing kabaddi, fearing he won't study well. "He would sit at the entrance, challenging him to step out, but our man would jump the wall and scoot. Mother would then be scolded."
It was the prizes -- steel utensils, gas stoves, cylinders, tea-sets and radios -- won by Anup in local tournaments that softened his Subhedar Major father first. Then came the lure of a sports quota job. Because with his studies, dubbed kaam-chalau (mediocre) by Neelam, the prospects were definitely not bright.
"I wasn't interested in studies. In 1999, I somehow cleared 10th standard by copying and then cleared the rest through 'Open' University," Anup says matter-of-factly. With a goal to secure a job using kabaddi skills (not uncommon among North Indian boys, who have wrestling and boxing as other alternatives), Anup raided away from Palra and adjoining districts to become a constable in the CRPF (Central Reserve Police Force) with a posting in Delhi.
The path ahead
Players with these kinds of backgrounds don't always gel well with PKL's metro-bred support staff, often leading to conflicts. Anup's 'been-there-done-that' class could be the middle ground where the two worlds meet. "Look, all players come with their own skills and qualities, it's our job to identify and hone them," he responds when asked how he can train a player whose technique has been shaped over the years by rustic methods, in a few weeks.
"Of course, there's less time and we have to move fast. But I don't want to change someone's core techniques to adapt to my ways. For instance, if a raider kicks well and I tell him, 'Go do toe touches now', that's not going to work. I'd rather work on fine-tuning his kicks further," Anup explains.
The 'toe-touch' is one of many deft skills that are increasingly becoming less popular with modern PKL raiders, who prefer to muscle their way out with a 'dubki' or a scorpion kick.
Even though he's just begun his 'second innings' in kabaddi, Anup already has made a few plans for the future. When he's done with coaching, he wishes to set up a coaching academy with 'proper facility' in Palra. Whatever his third innings bring, expect Anup Kumar to go 'All In'.